"That's sooooo great that you're still seeing each other. Chaz—that's Chase's father—doesn't even go to our school anymore. He got sent to military school. His parents were so mad when they found out that I was, you know, 'uploaded,' he was afraid they might actually have him unwound. Can you believe it?"
Risa could strangle this girl if it weren't for the fact that it would leave drooling Chase motherless.
"So, is yours a boy, or a girl?"
The pause before answering is awkward and uncomfortable. Risa wonders whether or not there's a discreet way to check without Alexis seeing, but realizes there isn't. "Girl," Risa says. At least there's a 50 percent chance she's right.
"What's her name?"
This time Connor pipes up. "Didi," he says. "Her name's Didi." This brings forth a little grin from Risa in spite of how angry she is at him.
"Yeah," says Risa. "Same as me. Family tradition."
Clearly Connor has recovered at least a portion of his senses. He seems a bit more relaxed and natural, playing the role as best he can. The redness in his face has receded until it's only his ears that are red.
"Well, you're going to love Center-North High," Alexis says. "They've got a great day care center, and really take care of student-mothers. Some teachers even let us nurse in class."
Connor puts his hand over Risa's shoulder. "Do fathers get to watch?"
Risa shrugs off his arm, and quietly stomps on his foot. He winces, but says nothing. If he thought he was out of the doghouse, he's dead wrong. As far as she's concerned, his name is Fido.
"It looks like your brother is making friends," says Alexis. She looks to where Lev was sitting, but he's moved a seat ahead and is talking to boy sitting next to him. She tries to hear what they're talking about but can't hear anything beyond Alexis's blathering.
"Or is it your brother?" Alexis says to Connor.
"No, he's mine," says Risa.
Alexis grins and rolls her shoulders a bit. "He's kind of cute."
Risa didn't think it was possible to like Alexis any less than she already did. Apparently she was wrong. Alexis must see the look in Risa's eyes, because she says, "Well, I mean cute for a freshman."
"He's thirteen. He skipped a grade," Risa says, burning Alexis an even meaner warning gaze that says, Keep your claws away from my little brother. She has to remind herself that Lev really isn't her little brother. Now it's Connor's turn to stomp on her foot—and he's right to do it. Too much information. Lev's real age was more than Alexis needed to know. And besides, making an enemy is not in their best interests.
"Sorry," says Risa, softening her gaze. "Long night with the baby. It's made me cranky."
"Oh, believe me, I've totally been there."
It looks as if the Alexis Inquisition might continue until they reach the school, but the bus comes to another sudden stop, making little Chase bump his chin on the seat back, and he begins to cry. Suddenly Alexis goes into mother mode, and the conversation ends.
Risa heaves a deep sigh, and Connor says, "I really am sorry about this." Although he sounds sincere, she's not accepting any apologies.
This day has not gone according to plan.
The plan was to get away as soon as they reached civilization. Lev could have run the moment they broke out of the woods. He could have, but he didn't. There'll be a better time, he had thought. A perfect time would present itself if he had patience, and kept watchful.
Pretending to be one of them—pretending to be like them had taken every ounce of Lev's will. The only thing that kept him going was the knowledge that very soon everything would be as it should be.
When the police car had turned onto the street, Lev was fully prepared to throw himself at the car and turn himself in. He would have done it if it weren't for one thing.
Their pictures weren't in the paper.
That bothered Lev even more than the others. His family was influential. They were not to be trifled with. He felt certain that his face would be the biggest thing on the front page. When it wasn't, he didn't know what to think. Even Risa's theory that his parents wanted her and Connor killed seemed a possibility.
If he gave himself up to the police, what if they turned and fired real bullets at Risa and Connor? Would the police do that? He wanted them brought to justice, but he couldn't bear the thought of their deaths on his head, so he had let the squad car go past.
And now things are worse. Now there's this baby. Stealing a storked baby! These two Unwinds are out of control. He no longer fears that they'll kill him, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous. They need to be protected from themselves. They need . . . they need . . . they need to be unwound. Yes. That's the best solution for these two. They're of no use to anyone in their current state, least of all themselves. It would probably be a relief for them, for now they're all broken up on the inside. Better to be broken up on the outside instead. That way their divided spirits could rest, knowing that their living flesh was spread around the world, saving lives, making other people whole. Just as his own spirit would soon rest.
He ponders this as he sits on the bus, trying to deny how mixed his feelings about it are.
While Risa and Connor talk to a painfully perky girl and her baby, Lev moves one seat forward in the bus, putting more distance between them. A boy gets on the bus and sits down next to him, wearing headphones and singing to music that Lev can't hear. The kid slips his backpack in between them on the seat, practically wedging Lev in, and returns his full attention to his tunes.
That's when Lev gets an idea. He looks behind him to see Connor and Risa still involved with the other girl and her baby. Carefully Lev reaches into the kid's backpack and pulls out a dog-eared notebook. Written on it in big black letters is DEATH BY ALGEBRA, with little skulls and crossbones. Inside are messy math equations and homework graded down for sloppiness. Lev quietly turns to a blank page, then he reaches into the kid's pack again, pulling out a pen. All the while, the kid is so absorbed in his music, he doesn't notice. Lev begins to write:
HELP! I'M BEING HELD HOSTAGE
BY TWO AWOL UNWINDS.
NOD IF YOU UNDERSTAND . . .
When he's done, he tugs the boy's shoulder. It takes two tugs to get his attention.
Lev holds out the notebook, making sure he docs it in such a way that it's not too obvious. The boy looks at him and says:
"Hey, that's my notebook."
Lev takes a deep breath. Connor's looking at him now. He's got to be careful. "I know it's your notebook," Lev says, trying to say as much as he can with his eyes. "I just . . . needed . . . one . . . page. . . ."
He holds the notebook a little higher for the kid to read, but the kid's not even looking at it. "No! You should have asked first." Then he rips out the page without even looking at it, crumples the paper, and to Lev's horror hurls it toward the front of the bus. The paper wad bounces off the head of another kid, who ignores it, and it falls to the floor. The bus comes to a stop, and Lev feels his hope trampled beneath thirty pairs of scuffed shoes.
Dozens of buses pull up to the school. Kids mob every doorway. As Connor gets off the bus with Risa and Lev, he scans for a way to escape, but there is none. There are campus security guards and teachers on patrol. Anyone seen walking away from school would draw the attention of everyone watching.
"We can't actually go in," says Risa.
"I say we do," says Lev, acting more squirrelly than usual.
A teacher has already taken notice of them. Even though the school has a day care center for student mothers, the baby is very conspicuous.
"We'll go in," says Connor. "We'll hide in a place where there aren't any security cameras. The boys' bathroom."
"Girls'," says Risa. "It'll be cleaner, and there'll be more stalls to hide in."
Connor considers it, and figures she's probably right on both counts. "Fine. We'll hide until lunch, then slip out with the rest of the kids going off campus."
"You're assuming this baby wants to cooperate," says Risa. "Eventually it's going to want to be fed—and I don't exactly have the materials, if you know what I mean. If it starts crying in the bathroom, it will probably echo throughout the whole school."
It's another accusation. Connor can hear it in her voice. It says: Do you have any idea how much harder you've made things on us?
"Let's just hope it doesn't cry," says Connor. "And if it does, you can blame me all the way to harvest camp."
* * *
Connor is no stranger to hiding in school bathrooms. Of course, before today, the reason was simply to get out of class. Today, however, there's no class where he's expected, and if he's caught, the consequences are a little bit more severe than Saturday school.
They slip in after the first period bell rings and Connor coaches them on the finer points of bathroom stealth. How to tell the difference between kids' footsteps and adults'. When to lift your feet up so no one can see you, and when to just announce that the stall is occupied. The latter would work for both Risa and Lev, since his voice is still somewhat high, but Connor doesn't dare pretend to be a girl.
They stay together yet alone, each in their own stall. Mercifully, the bathroom door squeals like a pig whenever it's opened, so they have warning when anyone comes in. There are a few girls at the beginning of first period but then it quiets down and they are left with no sound but the echoing drizzle of a leaky flush handle.
"We won't make it in here until lunch," Risa announces from the stall to Connor's left. "Even if the baby stays asleep."
"You'd be surprised how long you can hide in a bathroom."
'You mean you've done this often?" asks Lev, in the stall to his right.
Connor knows this fits right into Lev's image of Connor as a bad seed. Fine, let him think that. He's probably right.
The bathroom door squeals. They fall silent. Dull, rapid footsteps—it's a student in sneakers. Lev and Connor raise their feet and Risa keeps hers down, as they had planned. The baby gurgles, and Risa clears her throat, masking the noise perfectly. The girl is in and out in less than a minute.
After the bathroom door squeaks closed, the baby coughs. Connor notices that it's a quick, clean sound. Not sickly at all. Good.
"By the way," says Risa, "it is a girl."
Connor thinks to offer to hold it once more, but figures right now that would be more trouble than it's worth. He doesn't know how to hold a baby to keep it from crying. Connor decides he has to tell them why he went temporarily insane and took the baby. He owes them that much.
"It was because of what the kid said," Connor says gently.
"Back at that house—the fat kid at the door. He said they'd been storked again."
"So what?" says Risa. "Lots of people get storked more than once."
Then, from his other side, Connor hears, "That happened to my family. I have two brothers and a sister who were brought by the stork before I was born. It was never a problem."
Connor wonders if Lev actually thinks the stork brought them, or if he's just using it as an expression. He decides he'd rather not know. "What a wonderful family. They take in storked babies, and send their own flesh and blood to be unwound. Oh, sorry—tithed."